Magazine article The Spectator

Ripping Yarns

Magazine article The Spectator

Ripping Yarns

Article excerpt

Brian Sewell on the forgery, theft and destruction of some of the world's masterpieces.

Lost, Stolen or Shredded by Rick Gekoski Prole, £14.99, pp. 256, ISBN 9781846684913 Below the title of this book, engendering immediate distrust, lies the legend 'Stories of Missing Works of Art and Literature.' 'Story' is such a weasel word, implying a tale as much as truth; a fiction that when turned into a narrative develops into the fact that every schoolboy knows; or a real event embroidered with fictitious detail to amuse; even a ripping yarn - as proves to be the case with the first of the essays in this book.

'Has anyone seen the Mona Lisa?' Rick Gekoski asks, weaving Picasso into the warp and weft of her temporary absence from the Louvre in 1911-13; Picasso, by then notorious and wealthy, played no part in the theft, and his arrest was nothing but peripheral elimination from police enquiries (the dry, authoritative account is to be found in John Richardson's second volume of A Life of Picasso, 1996), but Gekoski must give us a yarn worthy of Reader's Digest.

This he further embellishes with the fact that Leonardo sold his masterpiece 'some time in the 1530s . . . to Francis I for the enormous sum of about $100,000 in today's money' - though Leonardo died in 1519, and we have no knowledge of the terms by which the picture passed into that king's hands. But the facts do not matter, for what fascinates Gekoski is the phenomenon of crowds in their thousands queuing for hours to contemplate the empty wall on which she had once hung.

Knowing far less about their subjects, I might have been convinced by the following essays on theft and destruction, but Leonardo's sale of his 'Mona Lisa' from the grave lurked in my mind. How reliable was Gekoski's account of the sack of Benin by the British in 1897? Was there really, as a consequence, a booty of more than 900 Benin bronzes? Why were only 203 deposited in the British Museum? Were the curators there really so blind that, as late as 1950, they sold some for £15 apiece? If so, then we should be appalled by both the desecration of Benin's cultural heritage and by the curatorial blundering.

These connected but almost unrelated matters are tied together in an essay that also extols an expression of Black Power in the Olympic Games of 1968, launches a critical assault on Joseph Conrad and his Heart of Darkness, not for any literary failure but for his Victorian view of the black African as innately savage, and aims a scatter-gun at both rapacious and well-intentioned colonialism ('hard to tell them apart'). Conrad's contempt for Africans was surely the uninformed view of almost every European, consolidated by the slave trade and Christian missionaries (though not by Emil Torday, collector for the British Museum, nor by Roger Casement). …

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